Feb. 13, 2010
By Larry Watts
At 175 pounds, Don Coleman would barely qualify to be a wide receiver at the college level these days. But in his prime, Coleman not only played, but the former Michigan State standout was one of the best two-way linemen in the nation.
“I’ve really been blessed,’’ says Coleman, who will turn 82 in May. “I’ve had a lot of firsts in my life. But the thing that is most important to me is the people I’ve met along the way of life and how the vast majority have put their hand out to pull you up or help you along and contribute to your growth and development.
“It’s more what others have done. You have to learn to give of oneself. In life, you can’t be just a taker, you have to learn to be a giver.’’
Among the firsts in Coleman’s life: the first black swimmer at Flint Central (Mich.) High School, Michigan State’s first black All-American (1951), the first black teacher at Flint Central, the first black assistant coach at Michigan State (1968), the first player to have his number (78) retired and a member of MSU’s charter class in its Hall of Fame (1997).
Coleman never had a dream of playing football beyond his one season at Flint Central. His goal was to work at one of the auto factories. He might have reached that goal had it not been for two key people who reached out to him — Florence Riddell, an assistant principal at Flint Central, and Duffy Daugherty, an assistant coach at Michigan State at the time, who later became the Spartans’ head coach for 19 seasons.
Coleman had moved with his family from Oklahoma to Flint, Mich., just before he entered his freshman year of high school. He was the fifth of six children, but his brothers’ Lewis (drowning) and George Jr. (pneumonia) had died at young ages.
Before entering his freshman year, Coleman got into a fight with another classmate.
“Someone told me he had called me something bad,’’ he says. “So I jumped in his face and confronted him. I didn’t know how much that reputation would follow me at the time.’’
Word of the fight reached Riddell, who met him on the front steps of Flint Central on the first day of orientation.
“She singled me out and took me to her office, where she read me the riot act,’’ he says with a laugh. “She told me they weren’t going to stand for those things in high school. She sat me down and wouldn’t give me my class schedule for three days. Then she escorted me to each one of my classes, but we became great friends after that.’’
Coleman played trumpet in his high school’s band and orchestra, and also swam for three years.
“I did have visions of becoming the next Louie Armstrong at one time, but then I found out it took a lot of work,’’ he says.
Having watched his father’s example, Coleman was no stranger to hard work. His father had given up a restaurant in Oklahoma to move to Flint, where there were better opportunities to earn money in the auto factories. In addition to working at the auto factory, his father also shined shoes at the Durant Hotel, where his son would work as a busboy.
“My father always made friends with all these executives when he was shining their shoes,’’ he says. “And when he heard they were taking trips out of the country, he would always ask them to send him a postcard and they would do it.’’
Although he had been rarely exposed to segregation in Oklahoma, Coleman said he had little trouble making adjustments in Flint.
“To me, segregation was just an expression,’’ he says. “There were certain rules and regulations you were taught at home and I knew when and where to give respect. You were taught what type of decorum is accepted in public and you learn through many ways to adapt to the environment. We were always taught to respect our adults and authority. The teachings I received at home and the exposure to my coaches taught me a value system, and it paid off.
“Those who didn’t understand the rules of society were generally the ones who got into trouble. I was always taught the Biblical verse: ‘Do unto others as they would do unto you.’ I carried that philosophy onto the football field, where there was a lot of name-calling, but I just put it into my mind to keep quiet and hit or tackle the guy that much harder the next time. There was never any hatred involved on my part.’’
Coleman, who called himself “a decent but not good’’ swimmer, did experience some prejudice at one meet. With a meet scheduled at Royal Oak High School, the opposing coach made it known Coleman would not be allowed to swim because a black swimmer had never been in their pool.
“My coach, Bob Richardson, sent a message back to him, basically telling him that if Don Coleman couldn’t swim, then the rest of the Flint Central team would not swim,’’ he says. “So I became the first black swimmer to enter Royal Oak’s pool. My coach was standing behind me and the funny thing is I wound up teaching civics, the same course he taught.’’
Having lost their other two sons, Coleman’s parents didn’t allow him to play football until his junior year. However, that experience was short-lived because his job as a busboy got in the way.
He got his parents’ blessing again in his senior year and this time he stuck it out to help Flint Central win the state title. His play also drew the attention of Daugherty, who was the line coach at Michigan State.
“College football just wasn’t part of my plan,’’ he says. “People working in the car factories were making good money, if not better, than a lot of people who went to college. I knew there was a job waiting for me as soon as I graduated. But I was highly motivated by Miss Riddell and coach Daugherty to go to college.’’
Coleman, who became a 60-minute man as an offensive tackle and defensive lineman, would grow a strong attachment to Daugherty, who served under head coach Clarence “Biggie’’ Munn.
“One of the most beautiful people you ever want to know,’’ he says of Daugherty. “I knew he was somebody I could depend on; somebody who would act as a father and be very concerned about you. And that didn’t just apply to Don Coleman; it applied to everyone on the team he came in contact with.
“Duffy always had an Irish joke to tell to keep you laughing. We were at practice popping dummies one day and he came by with a joke. The laughter was so loud, that Biggie yelled down from his tower, ‘Duffy, what are you guys doing over there? Get those damn guys to work!’’’
During his three varsity seasons (1949-51) under Munn, the Spartans, who did not join the Big Ten until 1953, put together a 23-4 record. They were 9-0 and voted national champions in Coleman’s senior year. When Coleman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation, they had already won 15 games during a 28-game winning streak.
“Biggie had a very strong personality,’’ Coleman says. “When he spoke, it was like God talking. He demanded respect from his players and gave it right back. It was the same for that entire coaching staff. Duffy and Biggie never saw the color of an individual and I can truthfully say I have never been exposed to anyone who has criticized them.’’
Coleman attributes his success as a 175-pound tackle to his speed.
“I didn’t have the physical build or the stamina, so I learned to utilize my speed,’’ he says. “I could outrun most of the backs.’’
Coleman did get a chance to run the ball one time as a senior at Indiana.
“I took the handoff, went to the four-hole and was met by a linebacker,’’ he says. “When I got back to the huddle, I said, ‘Let’s not call that play again.’ I liked being the hitter, not the one that got hit.’’
Coleman was voted Michigan State’s Most Valuable Player in 1951 and the runner-up to Oklahoma’s Jim Weatherall, who was 50 pounds heavier, for the Outland Trophy. He still remembers the trip to New York when he met Weatherall and Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“Just to see Weatherall face-to-face was fantastic,’’ he says. “Then Bear Bryant told me, ‘You can play on my team anytime.’ That’s something I will never forget.
“It wasn’t the coaches in the South who were against having black players; it was just the philosophy of the time. But you learned that philosophy and lived by it.’’
Coleman went on to play in the East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl, where he was voted Most Outstanding Lineman in both games, and then the College All-Star Game in Chicago. Drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, he played in a couple of exhibition games before getting traded to Green Bay. When Green Bay officials told him he would be switched to defensive back in 1953, Coleman called it quits and joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.
While serving in Korea, Coleman adopted an orphanage and then wrote a letter to his former assistant principal – Miss Riddell - requesting her help in acquiring clothing for the children. Riddell worked with the city of Flint to acquire enough clothing for Coleman’s orphanage and another orphanage as well.
When Coleman left the Army in 1954, Riddell helped him get a teaching position at Flint Central, where he also served as a football coach. While working at Flint Central for five years, he also obtained his master’s degree in health and physical education from Michigan State in 1954 and taught Sunday school classes.
Coleman, who later worked in the elementary field and served as a community school director, remained in the Flint school system until 1968. At one point, he was a rehabilitation counselor for prisoners, helping with home and job placement.
Daugherty, who was then the head coach, offered Coleman a chance to return to Michigan State in 1968 as an assistant coach and an assistant professor in physical education. However, those jobs only lasted until December because he wanted to work on his doctorate in administration and university rules prevented him from holding faculty rank while working on his doctorate.
His work at Michigan State came during the height of black awareness. He became assistant dean of students, heading up minority programs to create more opportunities and resources for black students. He eventually became director of minority comprehensive support programs in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. He served as the first executive director of the Black Child and Family Institute in Lansing, vice chair of the Michigan Department of Public Health Task Force on Minority Health Affairs and a trustee of the Michigan Capital Medical Center.
Coleman was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. Twenty-two years later, he was a charter member of Michigan State’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s difficult to put into words what that means to me,’’ he says. “It’s the epitome of what people think of you and it speaks a lot of truth about the individual when your compatriots feel you deserve such a special honor. They know the sacrifices you have made for your university.’’
Coleman was forced into retirement in late 1992. Suffering severe chest pain in November, he was admitted to Ingham Medical Center, where he underwent a quadruple bypass. While recovering at home, he suffered a heart attack on Christmas day.
“I had never been to the hospital prior to that, other than serving on the board of directors,’’ he says. “Since then, my cardiovascular experience has gone well.’’
Retirement gave Don and his wife, Geri, a chance to do more cruises, although difficulty walking forced them to give up their passion about five years ago.
“I think we did somewhere between 30 and 40 cruises,’’ says Coleman, who has now seen many of the places in the postcards his father used to receive.
“We loved sailing the Caribbean and we’ve done cruises in Asia, Australia and Canada. We have visited Spain, Rome, Japan and Korea,” says Coleman. “Our whole plan since the time we got married was to see the world and we have been blessed.’’
Problems getting around forced Coleman to give up his Michigan State basketball tickets last year, but he still follows as many Spartan athletic events as he can on television.
“The Big Ten Network has been great,’’ he says. “It’s helped me see a variety of schools and many different teams.’’
But he can’t sit around in front of the TV all the time.
“I still do dishes and I sweep,’’ he says with a laugh. “There are some things you can’t escape in life when you’re married.
“But like I said, I have been blessed. My wife and daughter (Stephanie Lynn) have been the backbone of my success and they have sacrificed a lot for me. They have been my rock, my sword and my shield.’’